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Statements on the Separation of Undocumented Immigrant Children from their Parents

Friday, June 22, 2018

June 21, 2018

SSWR's statement on the separation of undocumented immigrant children from their parents

The Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) joins its voice to those of our social work colleagues including those at the Council on Social Work Education, the National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools of Social Work and the National Association of Social Workers in condemning the policies that have been implemented by the U.S. Department of Justice, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Border Patrol regarding forcibly separating parents and children who arrive at our borders seeking refuge.  Although an executive order has been signed that halts the practice of separating families, SSWR will remain vigilant as there are still obstacles to ending the practice.  Further, the order does not address the thousands of  children who have already been separated from their parents. Research of our social work colleagues identifies the devastating short-term and long-term traumatic effects of family separation on those most vulnerable, our children, as well as their families. We recognize that the Administration's policy and actions of separating children from their parents is inflicting grievous emotional distress and psychological trauma to these families, and, in particular, to the children whose already significant vulnerability is exacerbated by the loss of the sense of security and safety that only the attachment to a parent can provide.  As social workers, we need to aid in the protection of our children and their families and not willfully put them in harm's way by supporting the continuation of these immigration policies and detention of children. We encourage our members to join us in this opposition and to advocate for children and families at the border in their own research, practices, and lives.

June 21, 2018
Rutgers School of Social Work

A Message from the Dean on Treatment of Children and Families at the Border

Fellow Social Workers,

As a school of social work, we don’t often talk “politics,” but we do always talk “policy.” We have all become aware of the mounting crisis created by the new policy of separation of children from their parents at the border. Although the President yesterday signed an Executive Order halting one piece of the current policy, many questions remain. As of today, it appears that those children who have been separated from their families will not be reunified in any timely manner, and it is unclear how the current federal court order limiting detention of children will be managed as families enter detention. Some, both in and out of government, have observed that many families may never be reunified. It is important that our concerns for these separated children and families not fade into the background as events unfold.

Let me be very clear, the policy of separating families is not congruent with the ethics of our profession nor with what we know about the effects of separation on children and their parents. As Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) has said:

What the administration has decided to do is separate children from their parents to try and send a message that if you cross the border with your children, your children are going to be ripped away from you.  That is traumatizing to the children who are innocent victims, and it is contrary to our values in this country.

Many of these families are escaping from trauma, abuse, and war.  Those who seek asylum at our borders are not breaking any law; indeed, our law protects the asylum-seeker.  As social workers, we know the effects of separation on children and on their families.  These effects are well discussed by researchers from the Rutgers Child Welfare and Well-Being Research Unit and colleagues in a recent piece in The New England Journal of Medicine. As the authors’ note:

The effects of traumatic experiences – especially in children who have already faced serious adversity – are unlikely to be short lived: cumulative adversity can last a lifetime.

As a former child welfare worker, I am painfully aware of these effects, and know that our child welfare practice models advise us to only separate families in the instance where the child’s safety is at risk. This is because we are always weighing one great harm against another. It is tragic that our current policy would force separation when parents’ actions are aimed at providing safety for their children. Many have used the word traumatizing to describe the effects on children. The deliberate infliction of trauma on innocents can only be seen as torture, and is unworthy of us as Americans.

Here at the School of Social Work, we call on our government to immediately act to reunify families affected by these policies.

We call also on our elected officials to pass legislation that will prevent both family separationand prolonged detention of families.

I hope you will allow me a personal observation. In the past weeks, I have been confronted in multiple ways with the same question, “What is required of us?”  In all of our lives, there is an answer to this question, based on personal and professional ethics.  This is a time for each of us to consider what is required of us as social workers and as Americans.

Below, you will find some links to a few statements and to a few ways one might choose to act.  Please feel free to add additional resources through comments on social media. I am well aware that this is a conversation for our country. As social workers, let us bring our professional knowledge and ethics, and our personal judgments, as we enjoin the conversation, the policy imperatives, and the social work responses.


Cathryn C. Potter, M.S.W., Ph.D.
Dean and Distinguished Professor
School of Social Work
Rutgers University

June 20, 2018
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

Statement on Harmful Consequences of Separating Families at the U.S. Border

We urge the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to immediately stop separating migrant children from their families, based on the body of scientific evidence that underscores the potential for lifelong, harmful consequences for these children and based on human rights considerations.

Reports from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine contain an extensive body of evidence on the factors that affect the welfare of children – evidence that points to the danger of current immigration enforcement actions that separate children from their parents. Research indicates that these family separations jeopardize the short- and long-term health and well-being of the children involved. In addition, the Committee on Human Rights of the National Academies, which has a long history of addressing issues at the intersection of human rights, science, and health, stresses that the practice of separating parents from their children at the border is inconsistent with U.S. obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Parents’ impact on their children’s well-being may never be greater than during the earliest years of life, when a child’s brain is developing rapidly and when nearly all of her or his experiences are shaped by parents and the family environment (NASEM, 2016, p. 1).  Young children who are separated from their primary caregivers may potentially suffer mental health disorders and other adverse outcomes over the course of their lives (NASEM, 2016, p. 21-22). Child development involves complex interactions among genetic, biological, psychological, and social processes (NRC and IOM, 2009, p. 74), and a disruption in any of these – such as family disruption – hinders healthy development and increases the risk for future disorders (NRC and IOM, 2009, p.102-104).  Young children are capable of deep and lasting sadness, grief, and disorganization in response to trauma and loss (NRC and IOM, 2000, p. 387).  Indeed, most mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders have their roots in childhood and adolescence (NRC and IOM, 2009, p. 1), and childhood trauma has emerged as a strong risk factor for later suicidal behavior (IOM, 2002, p. 3).  

Decades of research have demonstrated that the parent-child relationship and the family environment are at the foundation of children’s well-being and healthy development. We call upon the Department of Homeland Security to stop family separations immediately based on this evidence.

Marcia McNutt
President, National Academy of Sciences

C. D. Mote, Jr.
President, National Academy of Engineering

Victor J. Dzau
President, National Academy of Medicine

Jennifer Walsh, Director of Media Relations
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail news@nas.edu

Social Media:
Follow us on Twitter: @theNASEM 
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Follow us on Facebook: @NationalAcademies

June 18, 2018

Rep. Barbara Lee

Led by Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA-13), chair of the Congressional Social Work Caucus, five social workers in the House of Representatives released a statement on the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that has resulted in more than 2,000 children being separated from their parents. Joining Congresswoman Lee were Congresswomen Karen Bass (D-CA-37), Susan Davis (D-CA-53), and Carol Shea Porter (D-NH-1), and Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL-4). They released the following statement earlier this month:

“The Trump Administration’s policy of separating children from their parents is terrifying and frankly, abhorrent. Reports indicate that very young children– who are already fleeing dangerous conditions at home including domestic violence – are being taken from their parents. Families are often separated by hundreds of miles, and children are being housed in inadequate facilities. As social workers, we understand the profound impact that family separation has on a child’s developmental growth and on our society. These heartless policies instill a sense of helplessness and despair in children and could result in long-term trauma and health repercussions.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that the separation of children from parents, and detention in DHS facilities that do not meet the basic standard of care for children, pose a significant threat to their long-term health and well-being. Their findings have led them to recommend that children in the custody of their parents should never be detained or separated from a parent unless a competent family court makes that determination.

“Every passing day of separation has grave consequences for these children’s well-being. These are innocent children who have done nothing wrong. Forcing them to suffer at the hands of the US government is inhumane and un-American. We are taking all actions possible to end this brutal policy and reunite children with their families.”

The public’s response to the new policy has been swift and brutal with some liking it to tactics used by totalitarian regimes. Former First Lady Laura Bush wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post that separating children from their parents was “eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.” Current First Lady Melania Trump issued a statement decrying the policy and urging lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to find a solution.

The Congressional Social Work Caucus was created in 2010 by former Congressman Edolphus “Ed” Towns, a social worker representing Brooklyn, NY. He wanted a platform on the Hill that would provide a voice for the profession in the legislative process. When he retired in 2013, he helped to create the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP) to complement the work of the Social Work Caucus.

June 15, 2018

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Issues Letter to the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security Denouncing Separation of Immigrant Families

Washington, DC – Today, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, by majority vote, issued a letter to Attorney General Sessions and Secretary Nielsen urging the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to stop separating children from their families after crossing our southern border. This policy changed longstanding border enforcement practices with no clear evidence that it increases border security. The policy ignores the reality that many of those coming to the border are desperately seeking asylum, fully within the parameters of our nation’s immigration laws. The Commission majority views this policy as inhumane and against the best interests of the children and families. The Commission calls on the Departments to stop this approach, which subverts the fair administration of justice and may discriminate against families on the basis of their national origin. The letter may be viewed here.


The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, established by the Civil Rights Act of 1957, is the only independent, bipartisan agency charged with advising the President and Congress on civil rights and reporting annually on federal civil rights enforcement. Our 51 state Advisory Committees offer a broad perspective on civil rights concerns at state and local levels. The Commission: in our 7th decade, a continuing legacy of influence in civil rights. For more information about the Commission, please visit http://www.usccr.gov and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.


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